London’s famed British Museum hosted a special exhibit this summer that was both fascinating and instructive. Labeled, “Treasures of Heaven,” it showcased the largest and most valuable collection of Roman Catholic relics and reliquaries probably ever assembled in Britain. Not personally being of the Romanist denomination myself, it might have seemed to be a waste of time to visit this exhibit. To the contrary, many of the relics and reliquaries (relic holders) showed spectacular artistry and were often breathtaking in their beauty. There is no question that many of the best artists and artisans in Europe spent years designing, constructing, and painting these items for the Roman Church. Still others were fine examples of “repousse,” an art form in which human likenesses were hammered out of copper sheets. Yet, in admiring this artistry, I wondered if any thinking person who viewed the exhibit might be strongly influenced to leave Catholicism. To see why, let us begin with some background to this subject.

Medieval Christians were taught by the Roman Church to look to the “authorized” saints for help in all of life’s travails, whether due to spiritual issues, physical health, death, or disaster. In essence, God was presented as being too remote to help, and the individual too unimportant for God to notice. It was to the saints they looked, who provided a sort of courier service to God, and who had the divine healing ability themselves (even in death!), or in some cases were a sort of good-luck charm.

Several exhibits depicted famous saints. One exhibit portrayed St. George, the patron saint of England, who long had a relic of his heart displayed at St. George’s chapel in Windsor Castle. St Christopher became the patron saint of travelers because by legend he once carried Christ across a river. St. Veronica was depicted in artwork with a sudarium (or sweat cloth); she by legend wiped Christ’s face as he carried the cross to His crucifixion. The cloth was “re-discovered” hundreds of years later with a “miraculous imprint of the face of Christ.” Legend is piled on top of legend, and so the “miraculous cloth” itself supposedly had extraordinary power to heal.

…many of the relics showed spectacular artistry and were often breathtaking in their beauty.

These relics and their supposed healing power still have strong appeal to the masses today. St. James, one of the twelve apostles, is said to have been martyred in A.D. 44 after preaching the gospel in Spain. His relics were said to have been rediscovered there in A.D. 825 at a shrine at Santiago de Compostella in Galicia in northern Spain. In the year 2010, 270,000 people made pilgrimages to the site.

The British Museum interpretive text at the exhibit pointed out the adoption of pagan religious symbolism, images, and even terminology by the Roman church. An Etruscan Urn from pre-Roman Italy depicted a female winged figure which became a standard representation on later Roman Catholic urns. An exhibit sign nearby stated that this “demonstrates the continuing of pagan Roman practices by early Christians.” Another sign stated, “Jews, pagans, and Christians shared similar customs and burial sites in ancient Rome, A.D. 300-400.” In many paintings, “gold glass roundels” or halos were seen, also adopted from pagan sources.

Pagan Romans set up “votive plaques” requesting divine help at sacred places, and the exhibit informed the viewer that “Christians continued this tradition with only very slight modifications.” Signs of the zodiac in medieval art symbolized the months of the year. Yet another exhibit showed a “pedant amulet” from Roman Britain of A.D. 300, filled inside with sulphur, a ritual purifying substance. We were informed that “this practice was fashionable among the elite of pagan Rome and was later adopted for use by Christians.”

…and that the Word of God was (and is) the most important element in worship.

Christian and pagan religious beliefs were freely intertwined. A casket designed and detailed by a Frank artist in Gaul “shows Roman, Jewish, and Germanic stories.” The Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. was combined with runic letters telling the story of the pagan legend of Egil.

The exhibit told the little-known story of the Emperor Constantine’s British mother, Helena, who began the reliquary obsession about A.D. 326-8 while on a trip to Palestine. She brought back a piece of wood which she obtained there; having been assured that it was from the actual cross of Christ’s crucifixion! Helena found it by interrogating local Palestinian Jews to reveal the location of Christ’s cross. She had little success at first. Finally, a Jewish man named Judas Cyriacus “reveals the location when threatened with death in a furnace.” This “revelation” under severe duress was apparently not questioned, and kings and churches throughout Europe began paying high prices for any physical object whose owner claimed an association with a saint. In ensuing years, not only were all three crucifixion crosses supposedly rediscovered, but even the “reed and sponge” from Christ’s crucifixion.

The reliquary business was spurred further by the Second Council of Nicea (in Turkey) which decreed that “every altar must contain the relic of a saint before consecration could take place.” Some of the interesting relics later making their way to the church altars included hair from the head of the Virgin Mary, as well as her breast milk!

King Louis IX of France (1214-70) gained fame for his huge collection of relics. In 1239, he acquired the crown of thorns worn by Christ at his crucifixion “at the enormous cost of 135,000 lives.” Louis instigated the fourth crusade to the Holy Land specifically to acquire these relics at a tremendous loss of human lives. For his efforts he was rewarded with canonization in 1297 for his “piety.” In addition, the city of Paris received special status in the church as a holy city, “a New Jerusalem,” because of Louis’ acquisition of relics.

Not to be outdone, Frederick the Wise of Saxony (1463-1526) collected a total of 19,013 relics, which were displayed at the Church of All Saints in Wittenberg, Germany.

Roman Catholic adherents seeking miracles through the centuries paid good money to view or touch such relics–and still do today. The holy coat of Christ, which the Roman soldiers cast lots for, was shown at Trier Cathedral in Germany in 1996. Over 700,000 pilgrims paid to view it that year; in 2012 it will be shown again to commemorate the 500th anniversary of its “discovery.” Whatever the entrance fee, it would be a small price to pay if divine healing resulted. Those who are not healed, however, are told by the church that “only the worthy will be healed.” Yes, it is your own fault if you are not healed by the relics you pay to see!

At the end of the exhibit was the Protestant response to Roman relic worship. German reformer, Martin Luther, said, “If one counts up the pieces [of St. Barbara’s skull] she will have seven heads!” Similarly, John Calvin observed, “How do we know we are venerating the ring and comb of the Virgin Mary rather than the baubles of a harlot?” (Calvin, “Treatise On Relics,” 1543) The Protestant view was (and still is) that devotion to saints and relics is idolatrous, and that the Word of God was (and is) the most important element in worship.

I paused before leaving the exhibit and watched some young people reading the words of Luther and Calvin above, and wondered if the information presented would possibly strengthen their faith and lead them away from the worship of things instead of God, and of gimmicks in place of Godliness. I pray that men and women’s hearts were opened to truth by the information presented in this extensive and well-prepared exhibit by the British Museum.